October 29, 2013

The Mobile Shape of Things to Come

By Ash Sethi, Associate


Once upon a time, developing software was as easy and efficient as a day at the DMV. In the early 1960s, it took an entire room full of men at IBM with the same crew-cut hair, white shirts, thin black ties, and thick dark rimmed glassed an entire day to input two dozen lines of archaic code into a form reader. By the 1980s you could get by with ten fellows in a smaller corporation turning up in jeans, typing ReGIS into monochrome DEC VT220s.

Then came the next evolution: web and mobile software. Though most firms grow to be more sophisticated than this, many software startups start off with just two people on their sofas with laptops and pizza. Even jeans are optional.

Today most great mobile innovations incubate through startups because that is what startups essentially are: a small group of people solving a difficult problem.

Yet mobile isn’t the future of things merely because it’s more convenient for developers, although it is. Since updates are now done in real-time, there are no patches to issue to irate users, no QA scrambling to surface bugs before a release. In fact most ‘version releases’ are just hooks to attract the attention of industry press (Firefox 23 anyone?). The software evolves gradually so there’s no longer a risk that a new release will be panned—and even if it is, you’ll know right away and can make immediate changes.

Beginning with mobile email, consumers got used to the idea that they should be able to have instantaneous access to data and services anywhere. ‘Why not update my CRM in an elevator—I might forget by the time I get back to my laptop.’ Yet what mobile is actually doing is replacing the concept of “my devices” with “my data.” Instead of storing data on individual devices, data is in the cloud and accessed via mobile. This makes leaving a device in a cab or airplane a lot less painful, expensive, and dangerous than it was ten years ago.

The classic argument against a mobile centric world has been that a mobile device as a UI is a poor medium to deliver high end services with well-crafted UX. Web browsers were also not designed to be a UI for SaaS applications but the convenience of them was such a win for users and developers that they ate up the licensed software market. The same is true for mobile. JK Rowling may not write a Harry Potter comeback novel on an iPhone, but with a tablet she could write everywhere and anywhere inspiration struck—and not lose a word because an idea had been lost while she rushed to find a computer or scratchpad.